Craft Beer in Japan

Even in Japan they’re well into the craft beer revolution, but it seems the scene is not quite exploding as we anticipated on our last trip.

Stood at a window on the 16th floor overlooking the Tokyo night time cityscape and the kind of imagery on two cans of beer in my hands could resemble something from Hackney, London or Portland, Oregon.

Japan's Craft Beer Choices

Japan picked up on craft beer a few years back and we’ve had reason to pop out good few times since.  Although there is still momentum it seems to have levelled off with only the occasional new boutique bar and brew pub on my radar.

Admittedly it is hard for the occasional visitor to judge with no ability to read Kanji, so we’re going on word of mouth and English-friendly realms of the internet.  Still, word of mouth is king over here.

Decent beers are to be had, even at convenience stores such as Family Mart / Lawson etc.  The selection has grown slightly in the past 12 months and even Kirin now do a few decent ales including this Saison:

Even big Japanese breweries now make decent alternative craft beers like this Saison.

Of course, for proper craft you still need to dig deeper.  The next easiest level of investigative work is simple – pop down to the basement floor of a big department store (e.g. Tobu / Seibu) – common at large train stations.  Often, the lower floor is an array of food stalls or fragmented sections of what are virtually mini supermarkets.

Here’s  the selection at Tobu in Ikebukuro station, Tokyo:

Japan's craft beer scene has developed well

You’ll see an extensive selection. The foreign beers included an impressive range of Brewdog, broader than your average shelf in a UK supermarket:

Japan has big names like Brew Dog.

As for the Japanese choice, this section pretty much summarises the market in Japan.  At the top left you have the old generic lagers such as Yebisu, Asahi, Kirin and Premium Malts.  Then the more interesting stuff starts to appear and, just as the ‘craft’ beer scene in any other country, you’re really only guessing based on packaging.

Going by western logic we should be reaching for the colourful labels like these:

Funky artwork in common on Japanese Craft Beer labels

But then we also want to try the more amateur looking stuff as they are probably small time and could be funky.  In a way this mirrors the UK, where you might expect the below to be a more traditional ale, still quite possibly high quality:

Real ale from small Japanese breweries

In the end also sampled a few fun sounding fruit beers from this stock; the few English words on the label being more than enough to appreciate their uniqueness to my palate:

As for beer on tap, surprisingly, but very welcome, bigger cities do stock big American beers on keg, such as Sierra Nevada.  How can these kegs travel so far and deliver any profit? Perhaps they don’t. Maybe it’s as much about delivering a brand as the actual beer.

So, I’m off to another craft beer bar in Tokyo to spend my £9 / $12 in trying another local variant. Some have been genuinely great and even inventive. The rest are the usual mix of good beer (been there, got the t-shirt) and overpriced standard or even poorly made ales.

Last year we popped over here for a few weeks and could see big progress – including edgy and well rounded sour beers – and came away hugely excited about the future.

Could Japan become a trend setting market in craft beer?

This year there is still an appetite and it is true that when you visit a different region the range does change with local breweries getting a look in.  However, we’re starting to think that the scene is happy to slot in amongst the myriad of competing beverage traditions and trends.

I guess we’ll just have to come back and check again next year!

KANPAI to that!

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The Master Craftier Brewer

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